As a student with disability I can honestly say that progressing to third level education was the best thing I have ever done. My name is Gerard Gallagher and I have just earned a Social Science degree from University College Dublin.

I have a physical and learning disability; this has meant that I have had a different and somewhat challenging journey through the Irish education system. In order for you to get the full picture I will start my story from the beginning.

I have cerebral palsy. This has resulted in limited mobility, and as a result I now use a mobility scooter on a full time basis. I also have dyslexia this has meant that as well as physical barriers I have had to learn and study different ways throughout my time in education.

I grew up in Donegal Town where I attended one of the local primary schools. I was lucky to begin with my twin brother who was in the same class as me. As well as being an aid in those tough first couple of weeks he later served to be competition for me. We both adhered to the mantra “anything he can do I can do better.” As well as school being a new and daunting experience for me it should also be noted that the teachers were in a similar situation, as for the first time they had a student with a disability in the classroom.

In 1995 educational supports for students with disabilities were at the very early stages of development. For the first few years my parents fought tooth and nail to ensure I had the supports I needed to put me on a par with my peers. By third class I had shared access to a part time Special Needs Assistant and regular learning support classes. I would argue that these early supports played a very significant role in me achieving my potential in later years.

As well as the challenges in terms of educational support, I also faced the even greater challenge of dealing with other students’ reaction to my disability. I remember on one occasion somebody from the class laughing at me and asking “are you handicapped?”After this incident I was upset and went home to tell my mother what had happened. She simply said “You are different because you have cerebral palsy…that is nothing to be upset about.” From that day forward I have taken the positives from that incident and have referred back to it on a number of occasions when I have had to fight for extra support in second and third level.

Second level posed a set of exciting new challenges.  For the first time I was moving from class to class as such the supports I needed to allow me to fully participate in everything that second level had to offer also needed to be reassessed. Up to this point I was using walking sticks to get around the place. After two days struggling with my bag of books and new laptop it soon dawned on me that it would not be possible to carry on like this! I then switched to using a wheelchair. Once again it became apparent that I must be practical when knowing what I could and couldn’t do.

The staff of my secondary school were accommodating although for the first few weeks there was by now familiar look of uncertainty when I entered the class room in my wheelchair with my SNA. Certain teachers were unsure how to act as for the first time with my SNA in the room they had to share their classroom with another adult. Shortly however this unease soon changed and everything was just accepted as normal. My second level education proved to be the grounding I needed for third level as it was a second level where I began using a scribe and also assistive technology.

When it came to third level I had learned that preparation is the key. It is for this reason that I took my time to first choose the course which I wanted to study. After I had decided on my chosen course and college I decided to get in touch with the Disability Support Service in UCD to arrange a meeting prior to filling out my CAO form. This was a fantastic decision as I got loads of information on the supports available in UCD and also the DARE scheme (Disability Access Route Higher Education).  This meant that I was able to focus on my Leaving Certificate safe in the knowledge that I would get the supports I needed once I got to third level.

After I got my exam results I was offered my place in UCD. As I ticked the box acknowledging my disability on the CAO form, the DSS in UCD were aware that I needed supports. As such I organized an appointment with them so that a needs assessment could be carried out by them. This was self directed so I had the opportunity to decide what support I availed of.

I began with a full time Personal Assistant and Notetaker. I also had a laptop provided which had assistive technology installed on it which was chosen for my specific needs. Over the following three years I customized these supports to better suit my needs and reduce the number of PA hours which I had. I availed of extra tuition and the extended loan service in our library.

There is also much more to college life than the academic said of things! It was with this in mind that I decided to live on campus for my first two years of college life. This was great for my independence; it also gave me the freedom I needed to grow up. During this time I became Auditor of the Inclusion Participation Awareness Society in UCD and I later became involved in the national student movement.

I am now about to embark on a new and exciting journey as I begin my year as a Equality Officer with the Union of Students in Ireland. I am certainly looking forward to the challenges ahead and I am honored to be position where I will represent students with disabilities.

To those of you thinking of beginning third level education, simply, go for it! It really is a life changing experience. Secondly always remember that we will all face tough days from time to time but remember that help is at hand when you ask for it.